It’s one thing to read authors like Solzhenitzyn and Henry Roth in the halcyon days of college, when life is pretty much a carnival. It’s another thing entirely to read depressing books when you are out in the real world, experiencing depressing things as they happen in your own life. That observation explains why I haven’t read a real book in ages. But now I’m older and starting to worry that my brain is atrophying. So I’m taking myself back to school.
The reading of serious books is something that requires practice, and given that I’ve mostly read legal textbooks and romance novels for the past ten years, re-entry into the world of literature has been a brutal slog. I started with one of my brother’s favorites, The Wild Palms, by Faulkner, because it is relatively thin and also sounds like a romance novel. In fact, I think I’ve read a different book called Wild Palms, that took place in Miami. I think it was written by Jackie Collins. Anyway, this Wild Palms was nothing like that Wild Palms. Faulkner’s Wild Palms was trying to tell me serious things via metaphor and allusion that I was no longer well-equipped to understand. Plus, it was super boring. I tried not to feel that I was stupider than I remembered, and went back to square one. I needed something more plot driven, more character-based, more…romantic. Something like Return of the Native, or Edith Wharton-y, or…Wuthering Heights. I love Wuthering Heights. I’m not sure if Bronte ever says it outright in the book, but you just know Heathcliff is one hunky piece of ass.
Anyway, the good thing about serious books you might otherwise forget about is that they often get made into movies. As soon as I saw the trailer for Anna Karenina with Keira Knightley in that fur hat, I remembered. Tolstoy! Of course! I had never read much of the Russians in school, probably because both my parents loved Dostoyevsky. On TV, the book looked good. The people dancing in the ballroom! The snow! The clothes! That settled it. If the book was anything like the trailer for the movie, I knew it would be my perfect entry back into the types of books I wouldn’t be embarrassed to leave out for the housekeeper to see.
So, the book. It’s quite good. It helps that the people who translated my version (Pevear and Volokhonsky) know how to keep a story moving. I stalled at page 17 or so for a couple months, but once I got past the first few chapters, I was super into it. Anna is basically a selfish wench and you can’t help feeling sorry for her poor humiliated husband, especially because her lover Vronsky is SUCH A LOSER. I mean, if there’s a fault with the book, it’s that Anna throws her son away for the 19th-century equivalent of Justin Bieber. The real dreamboat in the book is Levin, the earthy, anti-social idealist who can’t help idealizing the concept of romantic love. The worst thing about the movie, after 1) how ugly they made poor Jude Law and 2) the unfortunate blond moustache they cast as Vronsky, is 3) the weird redheaded guy they cast as Levin. I’m married to a guy who was born a redhead, so I’m not knocking red hair. It’s just that Levin can’t be a redhead. Clive Owen would have been a good Levin. Clive Owen would be a good anything.
Anyway. The project’s working. My book reading muscles are flexing after years of stasis. I can feel myself picking up on underlying themes, and feeling a reawakening appreciation for the written word. Describing Levin’s feelings toward Kitty, Tolstoy writes:
“He knew so well this feeling of Levin’s, knew that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two sorts: one sort was all the girls in the world except her, and these girls had all human weaknesses and were very ordinary girls; the other sort was her alone, with no weaknesses and higher than everything human.”
That’s exactly how Tom feels about me! Who couldn’t appreciate writing like that? There’s a reason they call ’em classics.